and if I want too many things
don’t you know that
I’m a human being
– New York Dolls
So, it’s been a while. I was meaning to post a follow-up to the free screening that closed out the Shooting Down Pictures project. But one thing happened after another to forestall my bringing due closure to this grand, 3-year venture in film blogging and canonic completism. First, it took me a couple of days to get over the hangover of that evening caused by an after-party involving several hours of drinking and karaoke singing of album rock standards. Then, I quit my job and spent the summer in a mythical land where WordPress is blocked (I could only wish that all the spammers who post junk messages on this blog could be sequestered in that country…). Then I returned Stateside and entered a completely new routine of blogging for a new site, working as an ambassador for Chinese indie cinema and taking what little time remained to edit my own film. And so here we are, two days into the new year. All this time this blog has been lingering in the back of my mind like an old friend I’ve been meaning to check in with but never get around to, which further compounds the feelings of procrastinatory guilt accumulating over what is surely a simple exercise. So at last… let’s do this.
As for that screening, it went well – good turnout of mostly familiar faces, friends and cinephiles who either wanted to celebrate a significant passage in my personal life as a movie lover, or just wanted to see what the delectable images of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes looked like projected on a big screen off a mediocre DVD. Fearing collective disappointment from the crowd, I started off with a choice passage from Freddy Got Fingered to put things in perspective: at least we weren’t watching that (though a couple wiseacres seemed disappointed).
I still haven’t done a proper post mortem on what it is that I got from Shooting Down Pictures. One of my biggest supporters in this project, Michael Baute, asked me this question several months ago, and I still feel that I owe him a response (as well as a completed version of the video essay on the exquisite film Under the Bridges that I started with him and Ekkehard Knoerer 20 months ago[!!!]). Michael specifically asked me what it taught me about film canons, to which I don’t have a very positive response. As I became more familiar with the breadth and depth of cinema through time, place and genre, the 1000 films on the They Shoot Pictures list seemed increasingly incomplete, insufficient and misrepresentative as a canon. At this point I’m not even sure how good of a starting point it would be for someone wanting to educate themselves about cinema. On the one hand it’s good to have a basic, common vocabulary of films that represent cinematic concepts and values everyone should understand. But when one considers all that’s missing…
I’ve expressed my misgivings a few times on this space, pretty much with every update to the TSPDT list, most recently here. At one point I thought it might be worth trying to organize a coordinated effort to reform the TSPDT list, but then I realized that, to see my point through about championing alternative cinemas, it’s better to just abandon the canonical framework altogether. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done since film #1000. I was expecting to start delving more intensively into favorite auteurs, as some of my colleagues have done, but I haven’t. I’ve only watched about 100+ films this year, half of which are Chinese independent films unfamiliar to most people (something I’m working to rectify on another site, one of two that have effectively replaced this blog as the location of my online editorial activity). Perhaps it’s fitting that my work at dGenerate seeking and promoting great unsung Chinese indies has more or less replaced the time I’d spend hunting down the remaining titles of the TSPDT canon.
It goes without saying that I grew immensely from all the time and energy I put into this blog. Despite my gripes with the canon’s limitations, I got to indulge in a fair amount of eclecticism, confronting films I’d never heard of or otherwise would never pursue. (On the other hand, I wonder if it made my tastes too broad so as to be indistinct; I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the necessity of fixation as a distinguishing factor in developing a personality and a voice.) I developed my critical senses (or are they sensibilities?): concise observation, avoiding summarizing and just getting to the most interesting pockets of activity in a film, and offering context (social/historical/cultural) when illuminating. It got me a brief but rewarding stint with Time Out New York, a gig that intensified the punchiness in my writing at 225 words a pop. But for all my growth as a critic, I’m just another voice in a crowded field of online wordslingers. So I guess my point of differentiation is in making videos. At least that’s what I’m told helped me get my current film critic gig (more on that in a bit), and so I’ve come around to realize that this may be the métier I need to stick with. At least it’s something that redeems all those years toiling as a self-taught filmmaker.
The dream hasn’t died, though. I spent the summer in China working on my own documentary project, retracing my steps as a teacher from 12 years ago and reconnecting with several of my old students to see what they’ve done with their lives since. You can read all about it here, though it helps if you can read Chinese (or just copy and paste into Google Translate and marvel at the amusing garble that emerges). It was an amazing four months, almost a time out of time. I saw China at its extremes of wealth and poverty, booming cities and desolated farmlands, and my students at various stations in between, all pursuing their dreams just as it was my dream to immortalize their endeavors. I had a terrific host: Jian Yi, whose film Super Girls! is distributed by dGenerate, and who has set up his own center for cultural and social projects in the small, inland city of Ji’an, where I used to teach. This sort of cultural literacy and preservation work is quite rare in China outside of the major cities, and is desperately needed when present generations are consumed with a disposable culture driven by commercialism. His work touches many lives and is inspiring to behold.
My return to the US in September came with the expected culture shock (not least of which was getting re-acquainted to the non-stop barrage of social data on Facebook and Twitter, both blocked in China. I’m still not sure how I feel about what degree these sites should be in my life outside of my professional obligations to engage in them; I’ll just say that I’m highly sympathetic to the last 2-3 paragraphs of this kiss-off). Though it was more of a lifestyle shock that kept me off balance through the rest of the year. You see, prior to leaving for China, I had quit my steady, nondescript, nine-to-five day job of nine years (it still sends a chill through me to read that), and not having that routine to return to opened up considerable pockets of chaos (both temporally and emotionally) that I’ve had to tame. dGenerate Films is busier than ever; a big chunk of my October was committed to steering the tour of filmmaker Du Haibin through his first visit to the U.S.; the dGenerate blog, which I manage, has evolved into the leading information resource on Chinese independent cinema; and we acquired more titles than we had projected, which meant more work getting them ready for distribution. For more on all this here’s an interview I did for The Beijinger (hattip to Dan Edwards, who’s fast becoming an important correspondent on the current film scene in China)
On top of this, I now have an editor position at Fandor, a startup online streaming service that hopefully you may have heard of by now (if not have subscribed to). In many ways I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity from which to leave my day job and apply what I learned from Shooting Down Pictures. I get to hand pick a stable of regular contributors for the site’s Keyframe blog, the caliber of which I am quite proud (Jonathan Rosenbaum; Michael Atkinson; The Self Styled Siren – need I say more?). I get to produce video essays for the site. I get to establish the presence of what I hope will be an essential source for online content on great films.
Despite all this worthwhile activity, I’ve found myself chronically depressed throughout the last several weeks of this year. Much of it is due to a lack of progress on editing my footage from the summer, due to being occupied with Fandor and dGenerate. Still, on the balance of where I started the year, I should have every reason to be happy, even grateful, for what I have on my plate. But something happened, starting from when I left that old job I’d been stuck in for so long only to retrace my steps from 12 years ago in another country… well you can imagine the tidal wave of nostalgia over the pleasant naivete of the past, and regrets of opportunities missed, time misspent, dreams deferred. I haven’t quite been able to shake these thoughts until just now, writing down all I’ve done this year, which makes me feel that it was worth the time it took, self-forestallments and all.
At the same time, the career upgrade brought new responsibilities and expectations upon myself, at least in my own mind. It’s as if I’m making up for the 9 years of muted expectations in which I entombed myself in that day job; suddenly there’s no more room to settle, everything needs to be better, and there’s a constant voice in my head assessing what I’m doing right or wrong (mostly wrong), what more could I be doing. You would think that waking up to your own life would be a liberating experience, but it can also be a kind of hell.
Little wonder this movie made my top ten.
At my old job, whenever someone asked my ex-boss how he was doing, he’d reply, “Living the Dream” with a sarcastic wistfulness that I can still hear with piercing clarity. Not sure how many colleagues picked up on it or read much into it, but for me it spoke for my own sense of subjugation to a less than ideal life, the kind of compromise that we’re all expected to make sooner or later, and that I had made way too soon in my life, I now realize. And I also realize that, quite unexpectedly, I have escaped that fate. I am now cognizant of how much direction I can give to my own life. I have no one to blame but myself… and blame isn’t much use anyway.
It’s still left to see how things will play out with all that I have going on. It doesn’t help that I have an anxious disposition and get easily distracted. It’s at these times that my old friends the movies, especially the truly great ones, can occasionally offer clarity and wisdom. Not so much in what they say, but how. Two most recent examples below, both dwelling (if not luxuriating) in the messy uncertainty of the world, one with resolute playfulness, the other with endless patience, both infinitely attentive to what they’re capturing. There’s no question they deserve to be watched; we can only hope we are as deserving to learn from them.
Needless to say, neither film is on the TSPDT 1000. Greatness strikes where it pleases, and whom. I’m relieved that I don’t have to track a canon anymore (though for old time’s sake I might post entries on whatever new titles appear in updates to the TSPDT list). But it raises the question of what to do with this blog. God knows I haven’t had time to maintain it like I used to, its comments section are now weed patches of spambots. But I do miss the regimen and the discipline of maintaining an ongoing personal blog. I don’t if managing the Fandor and dGenerate blogs will leave me time to do much here. I do know that the alsolikelife website as a whole is due for an overhaul. We’ll see how long that will take. In the meantime, you know where to find me: Fandor and dGenerate, respectively.
Thank you for seeing me through to the end of this. I’ll see you at the next thing.